Welcome to the fourth edition of Uniform numbers through the ages, the series that looks at Giants of the past through the lens of their uniform numbers. This edition explores the number 9.
Number of Giants to wear this number: 37
Most recent: Brandon Belt
The three most prominent number nines in Giants history were all World Series winners. Wes Westrum caught every inning of the 1954 World Series sweep of Cleveland.
Brett Pill Brandon Belt played on the victorious 2014 Madison Bumgarners, in addition to being the starting first baseman on the 2012 team. Matt Williams also won it all, but as an Arizona Diamondback. Before that, he was arguably the greatest third baseman in Giants history.
Matthew Derrick Williams was originally a late round draft selection by the New York Mets, but he turned them down, instead attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Williams earned an All-American shortstop selection in his junior season1 and on the back of his impressive college performances he was drafted third overall by San Francisco in ’86.
In addition to his bat, the Giants were enamoured with Williams’ glove. While at UNLV, Williams’ coaches ran an unusual drill with him, making him field grounders with the bat of a ping pong paddle strung around his fingers, teaching him to field the ball with soft hands. However odd the routine, it worked. As then-third base coach Don Zimmer said later: We used him about 80 games at shortstop [in 1987] even though he wasn’t ready to hit in the big leagues. That’s how good he can pick it.”2
An early season injury to Jose Uribe had given Williams that opportunity. He grabbed it with those soft hands on the defensive side at least; Williams was the shortstop when the Giants set major league records for most double plays in three games (13) and four games (15).3 But the bat was truly bad, and Williams was demoted upon Uribe’s return in July.
Still, there was some signs of the power that was to come. In his 66th career game he hit two home runs against the Astros. A year earlier, Will Clark had had his first multi homer affair in his 67th career game.
Williams started 1988 in the minors, and again showed flashes of potential with a record-equalling four home run game in the Pacific Coast League.4 Days later, Williams was recalled to the big league team as cover for Uribe, who was on bereavement leave. In his second game back, Williams hit a grand slam off the veteran hurler Nolan Ryan.5
However, Williams was still unable to maintain a big-league batting average and was sent back down. Later that season the Giants pushed Kevin Mitchell to left field (the spot having been vacated by Jeffrey Leonard’s trade to Milwaukee), opening up a spot at third for Williams.
The job was his on Opening Day 1989. He had spent the offseason working under a nutritionist and fitness expert who, in an unfortunate foreshadowing of future events, described himself as someone who generates “performance enhancement”.6 It was, then “pretty discouraging, pretty degrading”, in Williams own words, when he found himself headed back to Triple-A Phoenix just a month into the season, having hit a paltry .130.
The expectations of the fans had been getting to Williams. “I had a lot of pressure on me because I was a No. 1 pick (the year after Clark).” he said later that year. “The people in San Francisco expected me to be another Will Clark, and it didn’t work out that way. I had to work a little harder, and all the time it took just added to the pressure.”6
Williams finally fixed his problems in Triple-A. He demolished minor league pitching, OPSing 1.073 while hitting 26 home runs in just 284 at-bats. When he returned to San Francisco in late July it was for good. He hit 16 dingers down the stretch as the Giants won the division, giving him 44 home runs between the minors and the majors. “He’s going to hit as many home runs as Kevin did this season. He almost did this year,” said Giants manager Roger Craig.2
When the Giants faced the Cubs in the NLCS that postseason, Williams was at the forefront of an attack that also featured Mitchell, Clark and Robby Thompson. All four hit two home runs apiece in the series, with Williams knocking in a then-NLCS record nine baserunners.
Game Four was all about Williams. In his first at-bat he broke his bat on a groundout to first. The meat of the bat flew into foul territory on the left hand side, causing a temporary wall to fall down in front of the VIP section as spectators jumped out of the way. In his second at-bat he hit a go-ahead two-run single off Greg Maddux. In his third time up, he ended an epic seven minute, twelve pitch at-bat, captured here in NBC’s glorious “Super Vision”, by launching a go-ahead homer down the left field line. Williams doffed his cap to the crowd, revealing his middle-aged hairline to a national audience. “College did it to me,” he said of his bald patch.2
The A’s went on to dominate the Giants in the World Series, but Williams did manage to hit a second inning homer in Game 3, reducing San Francisco’s deficit to one in the first game back after the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was about as close as they ever got.
Nevertheless, Williams had arrived. On NBC’s broadcast of Game 4 of the NLCS, Vin Scully shared a quote from a rival scout: “”I’m afraid he’s going to be as good as I think he can be.” Williams’ 1990 encore proved him right.
A brief note on Kevin Mitchell at this point, as he was not mentioned in the #7 edition of this series. (Mitchell wore #9 with the Giants from ’87-’88, before switching to #7 ahead of 1989, allowing Williams to take that number.)
Mitchell’s ’89 season was, to use a technical term, crazy good. His 47 homers were the most by a Giant in twenty years. It still ranks as the joint seventh highest number of home runs hit by a Giant in a single season, and was more than Barry Bonds hit in all but two seasons of his career. Mitchell was intentionally walked 32 times, which was then the fourth highest single-season total in history. His 192 OPS+ is the highest by a Giant not named Barry Bonds or Willie McCovey. And of course his 1989 produced a signature catch.
All of this added up to the Giants’ first MVP season since McCovey in 1969, the twenty year gap being the longest MVP drought in franchise history.
If Williams had arrived in 1989, he broke out in 1990. The everyday third baseman (he would only play 21 games anywhere else in the rest of his career) knocked in 122 runners that year, leading the National League in RBI and setting an unbroken Giants record for a third baseman. He received his first All-Star nod, won the Silver Slugger and finished sixth in MVP voting, ahead of teammate Mitchell.
From 1990 to the end of his Giants career in 1996, Williams had a .843 OPS, hitting 213 home runs while playing slick defense at third, garnering four All-Star selections, three Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers and an MVP runner-up placing. However, despite his continued excellence, the Giants never made it back to the postseason during his time with them.
Williams’ career year came in the strike-shortened season of 1994. The third baseman had hit 43 home runs through 115 games (here’s his 43rd homer) when the season came to an abrupt end, and was on pace to match Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
Would he have been able to break the record? Hitting coach Bobby Bonds certainly thought so, as he relayed in a 1995 interview: “I believe he would have broken Maris’ record, but I didn’t say it last year because I didn’t want to put any pressure on him.”7
What do the numbers say? Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS projection system to estimate the chance that Williams would have broken the record. Most of the simulated seasons showed that Williams would have finished with around 56 home runs, but they also showed a 36% chance of him hitting at least number 61.8
Sam Miller of Baseball-Prospectus used his website’s PECOTA projection system, in conjunction with a binomial distribution calculator, to estimate Williams’ chances. This method gave Williams just a 4% chance of matching the record, and only a 2% chance of breaking it.
Discussing these findings on his Effectively Wild podcast, Miller acknowledged that his method does not account for the possibility that Williams was truly a higher quality player in those four months, something a projection system would not pick up on. However, he and co-host Ben Lindbergh both agreed that Williams’ shot at matching or breaking the record was much closer to the 4% estimate than Szymborski’s figure.
The lamentable early end to Williams’ shot at history was only compounded when the slugger started off 1995 hotly, hitting 8 home runs in the first 16 games of the season. In fact, going back to 1993, this meant that Williams had hit 62 home runs in a 161 game period.7 Alas.
Williams’ Giants career came to an end in controversial fashion. Newly appointed GM Brian Sabean traded the fan favorite to Cleveland a little over a month into his tenure. The Indians were looking for cover in case Albert Belle went elsewhere in free agency (he did) and Sabean was looking to cut costs while replenishing the team in other areas. In return for Williams and a player to be named later, the Giants received infielder Jose Vizcaino, pitcher Julian Tavarez, a PTBNL and second baseman Jeff Kent.
Sabean was ridiculed, harassed and called everything under the sun.9 But the trade worked out. Vizcaino, despite sharing the record of most seasons in a career (17) without ever having a seasonal OPS+ over 90, played a solid year of defence before moving on. The saved money was spent on Darryl Hamilton, who was later traded for Ellis Burks.9And Kent went on to become one of the greatest second basemen in Giants history, winning an MVP in 2000 and being a key figure in a team that reached that playoffs three times in six years.
Williams spent a year in Cleveland before rounding out his career with the Diamondbacks, winning the World Series in 2001. He retired with 378 career home runs, 247 of them hit with San Francisco – a record for a Giants third baseman. Since retirement he has continued to hit dingers, while also watching current Giant number nines hit dingers against his teams. The circle of life.
In the next edition: the worst Giant ever?
- Garrett Downing (Mar 9, 2009). “Matt Williams: Baseball (1984-86)“, Las Vegas Sun
- Joe Donnelly (Oct 8, 1989). “Cubs’ Grace and Giants’ Williams Showing Talent in Playoffs“, Los Angeles Times
- Jody Meacham (Oct 8, 1989). “Matt Williams Is His Own Worst Enemy“, Chicago Tribune
- Associated Press (May 26, 1988). “Matt Williams Hits 4 Homers for Phoenix“, Los Angeles Times
- Times wire service (Jun 5, 1988). “National League Roundup : Williams Lifts Giants Past Ryan, Astros, 8-2“, Los Angeles Times
- Skip Myslenski (Oct 6, 1989). “Giants` Williams Busy Conquering All The Doubts“, Chicago Tribune
- Charles Johnson (May 12, 2014). “This Day in Giants History, May 12, 1995: Matt Williams Sorta Breaks a Record“, Elysian Fielders
- Dan Szymborski (Aug 12, 2014). “Projecting rest of 1994 season“, ESPN
- Rob Neyer (Sep 8, 2002). “Kent-for-Williams: from ugly to beautiful“, ESPN